Great Expectations

I am cross-posting this entry from my new friend, Greta’s, blog. Greta has created a wonderful blog series of guest posts called Great Expectations. You should go read them, the women who have posted are fascinating and so very diverse. I was honored when Greta asked me to contribute, and the following post was published on her blog last week.

My Great Expectations…

I had it all planned out. I expected to finish college at 21, become a successful journalist by 22, get married at 23, and have a daughter at 27. I made this plan when I was 15. I’m not really sure what spurred me to choose the ages I did in my Big Plan, but they sounded completely realistic at the time.

The first change to the Big Plan came when I met my future husband at 16, and I assumed we would get married one day. So, I left for college (he came too) and got married at 20. While I was in my Sophomore year, I changed my expectation of becoming a Great Journalist to going in to public relations (a much better fit, as it turned out). I graduated college just before my 23rd birthday (it turned out that I couldn’t take as many classes as I expected while working almost full time).

Then the really big changes to both my Big Plan and Big Expectations happened. Because, after being married for a year or so, I figured out that my husband was an alcoholic. So, there wouldn’t be any babies for us until he got sober. He was a wonderful man, and I loved him and was committed to him and our marriage; but, I wouldn’t commit another person to that.

I went off birth control at 27 because I expected that he would stay sober. I mean, he went through rehab, so you *have* to stay sober after that, right? At least that’s what I expected. Not so much. But he did stay sober long enough for me to get pregnant. And I expected great things for that baby. But then the baby stopped growing. And Mark started drinking again.

It took another year and a half for Mark to get sober for good and for me to get pregnant. In that time, I never expected to make a group of friends on the Internet who would keep me sane in the years to come.

So, a few years after I expected in my Big Plan to have a daughter, I had my first baby at 30 years old. A baby boy. He wasn’t what I was expecting, but he was perfection.

It’s probably good that my original Big Plan ended at 27 years old, because there is no way I would have expected or planned for the years from 30 on. Because I didn’t expect Mark to get sick in August 2005 and die in November 2005. You don’t expect your husband to die at 33. You don’t expect to become a first-time Mom and a Widow in the same year. It isn’t in the Big Plan.

I didn’t expect those Internet friends and the friends in my offline world to become as important to me as my blood family. I didn’t expect it, but I wouldn’t have survived without it.

When I stopped by my friend Angela’s house about a year later, I didn’t expect her to be home. But I am so very glad she was. Because Angela hatched her own Big Plan that afternoon. She expected me to love her brother and for her brother to love me. She expected that he and I would match each other’s humor and interests and values. She expected that he would love my son like a biological father.

I didn’t expect any of those things. I expected to go on a few dates with him to make Angela happy and to get out of the house. I didn’t expect to fall in love with him so quickly…or to be so scared of that feeling.

My Big Plan didn’t include getting married at both 20 and almost-34. My Big Plan didn’t include having another boy just before my 35th birthday.

I didn’t expect to live in the dual world of widows where you can be deliriously happy and guilty about that happiness because you feel like you are cheating on the dead husband. After Mark died, I expected to be a single mother for the rest of my life. It would be easier, right?

I’m so glad that life didn’t follow my Big Plan and didn’t try to take the easy way. My Big Plan didn’t make allowances for messiness. And it didn’t allow for other people’s influence. Thank goodness.

My life didn’t go as I expected, but despite the sadness and challenges, I can’t say I would change any of it.

Widow Wednesday: What Did You Say?

My amazing friend Robin recently ran with the Widow version of “S%*t People Say” meme. She put a call out to her widow friends to gather the (mostly) well-meaning things that people say to widows and came up with this hysterical (maybe just to widows?) video:

I heard most, if not all, of these and one point or another. Most of the time, people were really trying to be thoughtful. Or at least not insulting. Y’all, these phrases are never thoughtful and are almost always insulting.

So, here’s the secret to what to say to a widow: “I’m sorry.” If you have the need to say something else, ask, “What can I do for you?” Those may be the two most important phrases a widow/widower can hear.

Widow Wednesday: Giving Up Hope

Several months ago, when I was dropping the kids off at my Grandmother’s house, my attention was caught by a story on the TODAY show. The story was about a person who had woken from a coma.  I tend to notice all of those stories, but then this had the phrase I hate. The patient woke up when, “the family was just about to give up hope”. This isn’t just a pet peeve. This phrase cuts me to the core every single time I hear it. There are so many things about the phrase that get me. And I’m not going to claim that any of them are rational. I know those stories aren’t about *me*. Regardless, they get me. So, if you can’t put up with some crazy, you should stop reading here.

When a person wakes from a coma, just in the nick of time, and the family never gave up hope? It implies that I did, and if I hadn’t, Mark would have woken up. Because, you know, just a little more hope would have turned those black brain scans back to ones full of light and activity. A little more hope would have cleared his lungs. A little more hope would have made it possible for him to swallow without choking to death. If only I’d had more hope.

Mark’s dad, Larry, literally never gave up hope that Mark would wake. We were at the hospice unit where Mark would die in 8 days and Larry was still urging Mark to wake. It got so painful that I asked him to stop when I was in the room. I just couldn’t hear it. So, if just having hope wakes someone from a coma? Larry would have been enough hope for all of us.

I hear “hope” and “faith” the same way. If only I’d had more hope/faith. Which means what? I didn’t pray right? The hundreds of strangers lifting Mark up in whatever prayer/thoughts/pleading to their own personal God or high power didn’t count? That’s what I hear when someone says they had faith.

I know. I know that, logically, nothing would have changed if I’d had more hope. I think it hurts me to hear that phrase, too, because if Mark had woken up…he wouldn’t have been Mark any longer. He would have been a shell. Probably. At some point, I knew it was better to let him go. His body could have lived on life support and in a coma for a long time. He had already fought of lung infections that would have quickly killed older, sicker patients. But we had talked about it and I knew he wouldn’t want to live like that. But, if I’d had more hope, and he had woken up, I would have sentenced him to a life trapped in a broken body and mind. Probably. But, I’ll never know for sure.

You can’t imagine how hopeless that still makes me feel.

I Hate Columbus Day

I either love Columbus Day or I hate it. I hate it because it was the last day that Mark was home. The Tuesday after Columbus Day he went into the second hospital and never came back. I was off of work for Columbus Day and together with Mark’s parents we decided that it would be the test day for Mark to see if he could take care of Nicholas by himself. Until then, Mark’s parents stayed at our apartment with Nicholas while I went to the office. They were exhausted and wanted to be home as much as we were exhausted and wanted to be back to normal.

So we spent the weekend together. Mark figured out how to get around the apartment without running into anything or dropping the baby. We moved the furniture around, we got the playpen and crib set up so Mark could manuever. And Mark snuggled with Nicholas. That’s why I love the memory of that weekend, that Columbus Day. Mark got a full day of snuggle time with Nicholas. No pressure on him because I was home too. Except for one moment when he really wanted to go for a drive (and drive himself) where he got out at a store and fell, it was a very good weekend.

He felt confident that he would be able to take care of Nicholas starting on the Tuesday after Columbus Day. He said it would be slow going, but Nicholas wasn’t really rambunctious or anything, so he thought he could handle it. He was excited to be getting back to normal. We were searching for doctors, figuring out his new diet, learning what “normal” was going to be for our little family.

It only lasted that weekend. On Tuesday he would be back in a hospital and would never sleep in our bed again. Just over a week after that happy weekend he would be in a coma. One month after that he would be in hospice taking his last breath. His parents and sister were on one side, my mother, Nicholas and I on the other. His mother held his right hand while Nicholas and I held his left. When it was clear that he was at the end, I turned off the last loud machine associated with his death. The room got quiet, you could only hear breathing. Labored breathing, gasping breaths, N’s faster baby breath, and our breathing…trying to stay calm for Mark. Letting him know it was okay. Nobody really talking except to tell Mark we loved him and were with him. And then he was gone.

It didn’t all really start on Columbus Day, of course; but, I’ve always associated today with Mark’s final fight. It wasn’t until just now, as I was writing this, that I thought that maybe I should be happy when Columbus Day rolls around as it was the last weekend we had together. Just me, Mark and his precious boy.

Widow Wednesday: Movies Lie

In real life, comas aren’t like they are in the movies. That may not be a surprise to you, but it was to me. I was shocked by so many things when Mark got sick and during his time in the hospital(s). Like his coma. They said he was in a coma, but I didn’t believe them for a few days because it didn’t look like comas look in the movies. I know. That’s stupid, right? To be surprised that reality wasn’t the same as it was portrayed in the movies or on television? Crazy! But I had nothing to compare it to, so I was confused and disbelieving.

I wasn’t there when Mark went into the coma. It was early in the morning, while we were getting up and getting ready to head to the hospital for our daily visit. I got the call to come up to the hospital right away as he had been choking and when I got there, he was in the coma. Coincidentally, as I was walking into the ICU for the first time to see what was going on, I heard the family of another patient being told that he was out of his coma. I thought, “Huh, that’s good.” I had no idea what an enormous moment that could be. Why? Because people come out of comas all the time in movies. And they look good when they do.

The first day of Mark’s coma was the last day we had any contact with him. The fact that he was tracking us with his eyes and squeezed our hands in response to questions and prompts probably didn’t help my impression of what a coma was. But the first day was it, there was no more reaction from him that we could tie to a prompt or question or anything in the environment. So he should be peaceful and still and quiet. Because that’s what comas are like in the movies. But he wasn’t. His eyes were open, his body twitched, and for a few days his body seemed to be fighting. He was combative. Which is not what a coma is supposed to look like, right?

At one point the doctors had to order restraints on his arms because he was jerking so much they were afraid he was going to pull out his IVs. Who has to have arm restraints when they’re in a coma? It turns out that quite a few people do.

Almost six years later and I still get mad when I see a coma in a movie. I almost always say, under my breath, “That is such a lie.” It’s possible I’m slightly pissed at movie comas. But check it out, smart scientists are too. Seriously, though, you should read that article. It’s got some good information and definitions and it proves I’m not a wackadoo for being mad at movies. A few months after Mark died, I remembered that patient who had come out of the coma the day Mark went into his. And I was truly amazed at the miracle that that man waking represented. But I was still mad.

Widow Wednesday: Why I Reach Out

Even five years after I became a widow I can remember the overwhelming feeling of loneliness and fear I had when I joined this group. You aren’t supposed to lose a spouse when you’re young, when you have a baby, when you’re supposed to have 40 more years together. So, when you do? You’re pretty much scared out of your mind.

When someone tells you they understand? When someone tells you you aren’t a complete nutjob because your mind alternates between running like a scared rabbit and feeling like it’s completely stopped? When someone doesn’t ask how they can help, but finds ways to help without asking? Then that person is the most helpful person in your world at that moment.

So, even though it’s been five years since Mark died, I still talk about how it feels to be a widow. I still talk about fears and pain and hope for a widow. I still talk about joining this group of people because it may help someone not feel like a nutjob. And what’s better than that?

Widow Wednesday: Protecting the Dead

Sometimes, after people die, we make them into better people than they were when they were alive. Speaking ill of the dead is just not something you’re supposed to do. So how do you share information about your loved one without it feeling like you’re speaking ill?

I worry that if I am not completely honest with Nicholas about Mark’s life that he will have a warped image of his biological dad (the least worrisome outcome) or that he will repeat the mistakes that Mark made (the most worrisome outcome).

Mark made a *lot* of mistakes in life. Mistakes that really hurt not only him but also many, many other people. I don’t want Nicholas to make those choices. But I don’t want Nicholas to feel like I’m bashing Mark. Ugh.

I think part of this issue for me is that I spent so many years protecting Mark and his image (or thinking I was), so many years denying or just flat-out lying about our lives that I can’t get over the feeling that I need to protect him. There were a lot of people who got pieces of what was going on, but nobody who ever knew just how bad things were before Mark got sober. I don’t want Nicholas (or his potential family) to live that way, so I want him to be informed.

Obviously, at 5 years old, Nicholas isn’t asking too many probing questions about Mark. I want to be ahead of the curve, though, and address things before they become a problem.

Have you ever had to share uncomfortable information about a loved-one? How did you handle it?

The Real Day

The death certificate says that Mark died was November 19th, but it’s wrong. The real date is October 19th. My Mom and I were getting ready to go to the hospital and my phone rang. When your husband is in the hospital, and not doing well, you don’t want your phone to ring at 6:45 in the morning. Nothing good can come from that.

The voice on the phone said, “Mrs. Deer, your husband is on his way to ICU. He had an episode where he was choking and he’s not breathing on his own. You need to get here as quickly as you can.” The baby was wearing his fuzzy footy pajamas, the ones with two shades of blue stripes. They were too big on him, but he was growing so fast that I had gotten the next size up so he would grow into them.

As soon as Mark’s parents got to our apartment, we all left for the hospital. The motel where they were staying was only a block away, it only took a few minutes for them to get there, but it seemed like hours. I had forgotten to ask the voice on the phone which floor ICU was on, so we wasted precious moments going to the floor he had been on to find out where he’d been taken.

There was a doctor in the elevator. It turned out to be the baby’s pediatrician, making his early morning rounds for the women who had just given birth. Checking on his new patients, the newest lives in the hospital, while I was making my way to my dying husband. Just 4 months earlier the same doctor made rounds in a different hospital on the other side of town to check on our baby after he was born. Strangely, my manners kicked in, and I introduced him to Mark’s parents and my Mother. He said, “What are you all doing in the hospital so early?” I said, “My husband is here.” He just looked at me. I think, now, that it was shock or confusion. He got off the elevator on the floor before us and I was mad that he made the elevator stop again.

There was nobody in the lobby of the ICU. Nobody to ask what to do. You aren’t born knowing how to navigate a hospital. The ICU doors were closed, locked. I think I banged on the glass window. A crazy woman holding a 4-month-old boy in blue footy pajamas. The doors opened, I rushed inside and told them I was there for my husband. I can imagine how I looked. Panicked. Resolute. Stupidly hopeful that if Mark was in the ICU they could save him. The nurse said, “Mrs. Deer, your husband just got here, we’re getting him settled in. We need you to wait in the lobby for just a few minutes until he’s all set up. And you’ll need to leave the baby in the lobby with someone.” But Mark needs to see the baby.

They called me in. Just a few minutes later, but it’s amazing how often you hit time warps when you are waiting in the hospital. They called me in and my Mom stayed with the baby so Mark’s parents could come back with me. “As you know, Mark was having trouble swallowing the past couple of days. At the shift change this morning, when his day nurse came in, Mark was blue and breathing shallow, quick breaths. The nurse performed CPR. He is intubated now, the ventilator is breathing for him. We’re assessing him now, we’re not sure how long he might have been without enough oxygen.”

Too long. He was without oxygen for too long. His brain was damaged, there would be scans and tests and more scans. Twenty-two days of trying to figure out what was wrong with him. Why he wasn’t waking up when his body was perfectly healthy. Fighting off lung infections that would have killed older, less healthy patients. Twenty-two days of fighting.

But it was that first day of the coma that he slipped away. It was that first day, when Mark’s eyes were still mostly focused and were tracking us still, that I held up our sweet baby so he was eye-level with Mark and said, “You see our son? He is so lucky you are his Daddy. So lucky.” Mark smiled a little. It was that first day, when I told him, “You know how lucky I am that you are my husband? You *know* how much I love you?” Mark smiled a little and squeezed my hand.

He never responded again after that first day. Twenty-two days of scans and tests and biopsies and pissed-off doctors, and none of it mattered after that first day. His body was alive for 30 days after that first day, but Mark was gone. But he squeezed my hand and smiled at his son before he left.

How Much Longer?

How much longer will the first image of Mark that pops in to my brain be the one of him at the end?

How much longer will Autumn be bittersweet?

How much longer will I need my second husband to hold me while I cry for my first husband?

How much longer will I wonder if I made the right choices?

How much longer?